EC-47 MEMORIES (c)
By Capt. (Then) Chuck Miller Pilot & Flying Safety Officer - 361st TEWS Nha Trang AB
THE AIRCRAFT & THE MISSION
The Million Dollar Gooney Bird - Project Phyllis Ann
Project "Phyllis Ann" was a Top Secret classified program during the Vietnam War. It consisted of three Squadrons of highly restored and modified C-47 aircraft. These original 45 C-47 aircraft (subsequently expanded to over 70 aircraft under various project code names) were predominantly 1940 to 1942 vintage C-47D aircraft that were first taken to a contractor overhaul facility in Miami, FL where they were essentially "zero-timed" through extensive overhaul and renovation activities. Skins were removed from frames and stringers; corrosion was repaired or treated, engines and propellers were overhauled, landing gear was removed and overhauled, the entire electrical system was gutted and replaced, wings and fuel tanks were rebuilt, control surfaces were re-skinned, the nose cone was deleted and replaced with a radome, and the aircraft given a new coat of camouflage paint. In preparation for the upcoming trans-Pacific ferry flight, two temporary 250 gallon ferry tanks were installed with appropriate venting, servicing and interconnecting fuel valves & plumbing. These were located along the right side of the fuselage in the main cabin just aft of the cockpit bulkhead.
In addition to the basic total refurbishment, the cockpit systems were extensively modified in preparation for their special mission equipment for ARDF (Airborne Radio Direction Finding). The antiquated and unreliable vacuum-hydraulic auto-pilot was removed and deleted. In its place in the center instrument panel, a monochrome Bendix weather-avoidance K-band radar was added. Secondly, all of the vacuum driven gyro instruments were removed and replaced with AC electrical gyro instruments. A duplicate set of primary instruments was installed in the co-pilot position. The original gyro-horizons were replaced with units in both left and right panels that were the same or similar to the gyro-horizon found in the T-33 jet trainer. The original vacuum directional gyro (DG) in the pilot's panel was replaced with a six-inch diameter magnetic heading instrument, reference gyro and fluxgate magnetic reference system adapted from the B-52 bomber. (I believe it was identified as a C-12 Compass System). The aircraft was also equipped with a Doppler Navigation System (DNS), a Loran-C navigation system and computer, plus a gyro-stabilized optical drift meter at the Nav station (similar to a simple bomb sight cross-hairs). The drift meter would allow the navigator to optically verify when we passed directly over a ground map reference and thus could periodically update the Doppler position error in order to maintain absolute accuracy in our ground mapping location. Also included were upgraded UHF, VHF, FM and HF radio transceivers as well as secondary dual needle RMI indicators that were linked to the "back-end" mission equipment, as-well-as an advanced intercom system that permitted hot-mike inter-cockpit communications (a luxury almost never seen on the DC-3/C-47) and an isolated intercom system for the back-end operator crew members.
Electrical power was provided by main and alternate AC converters located in the tail lavatory. These converters were basically 12 volt DC powered motors that drove 120 volt AC single-phase alternators.
[As a note of technical interest, the design engineers equipped the aircraft with a Loran-C system which never became operational because, in the haste of the project development, they failed to recognize that the Loran-C system chosen was designed for aircraft with 115 volt AC three phase power, but the installed AC converters could supply only single phase power.]
After the aircraft refurbishment was completed the aircraft were then flown to the Sanders Electronics facility at Grenier Field in New Hampshire where the Phyllis Ann mission equipment was installed, flight tested and calibrated - at a total refurbishment and system installation contract cost reportedly averaging $1 million per aircraft - before the aircraft was released for ferry to Vietnam. This mission equipment included several operator consoles and a navigator station located in the aft passenger cabin, along with some sophisticated radio receivers and inflight tape recorders. Also included was a series of whip antennas that were mounted in a phased array pattern above and below the wings and forward fuselage of the aircraft. With this (sophisticated for its time) antenna system, the aircraft could take highly accurate bearings to any selected radio frequency, allowing the aircrew to fly an orbit around an enemy transmitter and triangulate its location, all the while other crewmembers were identifying, listening-to, decoding and recording the enemy message traffic.
With the sophisticated navigational equipment of the EC-47 Phyllis Ann aircraft, we could be constantly aware of our exact position over the ground (within the accuracy of the current state-of-the-art maps) and our navigator could then translate the triangulation plots from the mission equipment into an enemy transmitter site location within a few meters of accuracy.
Calibration Flight Test
When I received my selection orders for my new assignment to the EC-47 in SEA, I was a current C-47 Instructor Pilot stationed at Chicago O'Hare International Airport in a TC-47 Navigator Training Detachment for the Continental Air Command (ConAC, later redesignated as AF Reserves). Our Detachment had a total of three aircraft and six active duty crews to support a Reserve Squadron of some 200 Navigators trained and current for CRAF (Civil Reserve Airlift Fleet) should they need to be activated. I was current in the C-47 and had accumulated nearly 2000 hours of pilot and instructor time at O'Hare IAP. My SEA assignment required that I complete the C-47 Conversion Training syllabus, and SEA Counter Insurgency (COIN) Training at Hurlburt Field and then proceed to Grenier Field to ferry aircraft number 37 to Viet Nam (final destination to be determined enroute). At the time my training blocks were all completed, the Sanders people were running well behind delivery schedule due to technical system problems and they were only ready to ferry aircraft number 30 by the end of November 1966. The subsequent aircraft ferry crews were sent TDY back to their previous home stations to await recall.
I was finally notified to report to Grenier Field on 2 January, 1967. When I arrived with numerous other crewmembers, Sanders people were still backlogged on the delivery aircraft. After impatiently sitting around for over a week, I finally volunteered to help by flying a calibration test flight. This proved to be a very interesting and difficult proposition.
Calibration was accomplished with the aid of an added piece of test equipment. The test and calibration site was located on a small island about 75 miles off the New Hampshire inside a military Warning Area. A Sidewinder missile IR sensor was gimbal-mounted in the Plexiglas celestial sextant dome on the EC-47. With test flights flown in the near total darkness off-shore well after sunset, the IR sensor would track a bright beacon light attached to the top of a ground radio transmitter antenna tower on the island. The Sidewinder missile sensor would thus track and record the azimuth to the tower simultaneously with the Phyllis Anne equipment recording the ARDF azimuth to the transmitted radio test signal. When the two agreed consistently within specification, the equipment was deemed operational and ready to be delivered to the ferry crews.
The difficulty was that the EC-47 had to be flown in 10 mile radius around the island, compensating for wind drift, at night, with no visual horizon, no autopilot, and maintaining a near wings-level flat skidding turn (less than 10 degrees of bank)! These missions typically lasted for a minimum of eight hours on station plus nearly an hour each way to and from the island location and Grenier Field.
This was extremely unnatural, fatiguing, and uncomfortable flying, and when one finally broke off to return to base, their own internal gyros in the middle ear were so skewed that it was almost impossible to fly a coordinated radar or ILS final approach back at the field.
It was reported that, several weeks before my flight, one of the birds ran into trouble with the non-standard valving on the ferry tanks and ended up running one of the tanks dry. The resulting air in the lines caused first one then the other engine to sputter and quit while the crew was trying to manage the emergency and navigate home over the pitch black off-shore waters. This near disaster incident lead to some revisions to the ferry tank plumbing and valving, and heightened fuel management procedures for all of the ferry aircraft.
THE FERRY FLIGHT
The Ferry Flight and the Ways of War
I arrived in "beautiful Nha Trang" in early March of 1967 after ferrying one of the "new" Phyllis Anne EC-47Ns, #00665, from New Hampshire. We departed on the ferry flight from the eastern U.S. seaboard (N.H.) in late-January 1967 with a destination in Vietnam. Our itinerary was to proceed across the U.S. to McChord AFB in Spokane, Washington, then north to Elmendorf AFB, (Anchorage) Alaska. From there we proceeded southwest down the Aleutian Islands for 1000 n.m. to Adak Island, navigating over the frigid Bering Sea. Then 1400 n.m. south to Midway followed by island hopping on across the Pacific to our destination. (See Ferry Map below).
The aircraft, prior to the ferry flight, had been stripped of the classified Phyllis Anne ARDF equipment and antennas, which were shipped separately to the end destination. Yet the ferry mission was classified as TOP SECRET and this required that we arrange for a security point guard to provide 24-hour limited access to the gutted aircraft at all stops (including military bases) enroute. Amazingly, once we arrived at Nha Trang and the aircraft were re-equipped with all their mission equipment, the planes were parked in the open, with doors and access unguarded and unlocked on a darkened flightline on a VNAF airfield that employed hundreds of locals to provide all manner of services on the base and flightline.
EC-47 Inflight Electrical Fire & System Failure!
The weather on departure from Elmendorf was typical winter, scattered-to-broken clouds with bases at about 3000 ft and tops about 7000 ft.. We had filed IFR at 8000 ft. and were initially on top in clear sunny skies with a broken-to-solid undercast. The mission had a flight plan duration of slightly over nine hours against a prevailing headwind and a planned arrival after dark in the short arctic days of late January. Arrival weather was forecast to also be typical arctic island conditions with ceilings and visibility near IFR minimums in blowing snow and winter sea fog. The runways at Adak lay at near sea level in a valley surrounded by mountainous foothills to elevations of about 1000 or 1500 feet, which when combined with variable ocean winds caused turbulence and difficult radar approaches.
About five hours out of Elmendorf, I was hand-flying (no auto-pilot in these aircraft) from the left seat, and I detected an odor resembling burning cellophane. I asked my smoking co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Dave Dollahite, if he had inadvertently set some cigarette pack materials on fire in his ashtray. He responded in the negative. I turned and glanced over my right shoulder into the aft of the aircraft to discover the aft portion of the cabin rapidly filling with smoke. Out of the corner of my eye, a red light caught my attention in the center of the electrical control panel, which was on the bulkhead just behind the cockpit emergency exit door, about 24 inches behind the bulkhead that separated the pilot's seats from the aft cabin and radio equipment racks. A closer look revealed that this light was labeled "A.C. Inverter Failure".
With what seemed in retrospect like an impossible contortion, I managed to reach around my seat back and associated bulkhead, and flipped the A.C. Main Inverter switch to "Off". With that action, I suddenly found myself with all the gyro instruments showing "Off Flags", my electrical compass system disabled, all navigation equipment off-line, and all but our limited range primary UHF transceiver disabled. As described in the "The Million Dollar Gooney Bird - Project Phyllis Ann" section above, the EC-47 was an all-electric instrumented aircraft - all the vacuum systems and gyros had been deleted and replaced with sophisticated (for that period) A.C. electrically powered equipment.
In the meantime, our Flight Mechanic, SSgt. James Gavin, donned the smoke mask and hustled aft to the latrine in the tail, with fire extinguisher in hand, where the inverters were located. The fire was quickly extinguished with the inverter turned off, but it took over 30 minutes for the smoke to clear and to make an initial assessment of fire and wiring damage. The source of the fire proved to be the D.C. motor on the main inverter, which had apparently overheated and burst into flames, even though it was still successfully driving the integrated A.C. alternator. Adding to our concern, however, was the fact that the system design engineers had equipped the aircraft with an "Alternate Inverter" of matching size and specification as the "Main Inverter", but had mounted it immediately above the Main Inverter and had used a common electrical buss forward to the Electrical Control Panel. This raised the potential that the Alternate Inverter, the buss control relay and/or the common buss cable might have been damaged by the flames and high temperatures caused by the fire in the Main Inverter.
For the next half hour, we were obligated to maintain heading and attitude with "needle, ball, and airspeed" aided by the "whiskey compass", while contemplating our possible options. We had already passed the "point of no return" fuel state for returning to Elmendorf. The thought of having to make a "no-gyro" approach into Adak's hilly terrain at night, in IFR minimum conditions and in turbulence didn't sound too inviting, but the thought of possibly ditching into the Bering Sea in the middle of January with limited arctic survival equipment and no radio contact was even less exciting to contemplate.
After the seeming interminable half hour passed and the damage assessment was completed, Sgt. Gavin suggested that we attempt to activate the Alternate Inverter to see if it would pick up the load. Fortunately, it came on line and worked fine for the duration of the flight!
Dead Reckoning in the Soup Over the Pacific!
Our ferry flight saga continued after a 5 day lay-over at Adak Naval Air Station awaiting a replacement inverter from the mainland. Our next leg was to be from Adak straight south for approximately 1400 n.m. to a tiny little rock in the middle of the Pacific called Midway Island. This would be a true challenge for our newly graduated navigator, 2nd Lt. John Hanson.
The sophisticated navigational equipment on our bird left much to be desired. We had established on the six previous legs that the new compass system was highly accurate; that was a plus. But the Doppler navigation system proved to be intermittent and unreliable, and the LORAN-C was inoperative (due to lack of 3-phase electrical power from the inverters). This left us with three remaining systems of navigational back-up devices to aid the Navigator with his dead reckoning (DR) based solely on the accuracy of the weather forecast. The first, and primary aid was the hand aimed sextant mounted in the dome of the cabin which required visual sighting of celestial bodies for calculation of position. The second was "pressure pattern" navigation which made use of the gyro stabilized drift meter, which required visual conditions to the surface below the aircraft. The final tool was the ADF (low frequency airborne direction finding equipment) which was notoriously inaccurate until you got within 50 miles or so of the station and which was virtually useless if there were electrical storms in the area - something not uncommon in the mid-Pacific tropics.
Our Command Headquarters was pressuring us to depart ASAP from Adak and continue our journey to Vietnam where the Phyllis Ann aircraft were urgently needed. When we finally received our replacement inverter, the departure weather was below minimums and we were delayed another day. Finally, the weather improved marginally for departure and we were off onto the longest leg of our journey. We tried several altitudes, but were not able to find an opening out of the clouds, either above or below our altitude. This eliminated the opportunity to use either celestial or pressure pattern navigation. The Doppler was never on-line at departure long enough to fix our departure position, and as for the ADF, we were over 1200 miles from being able to anticipate acceptable signal reception from the Midway radio beacon (normally receivable at only about 200 n.m., at our altitude).
Our aircraft commander, Major Chuck Foreman, fortunately, was a seasoned overwater pilot, and he gave our Nav one of the best pieces of overwater dead reckoning advice I ever heard. He said, "Whatever you do, DO NOT navigate directly to Midway, but rather aim for a point abeam of Midway, but about 50 n.m. either to the east or to the west of the fix". That way - if we never get a positive ADF or radar pick-up - when your DR estimated time enroute (ETE) runs out and should there be no fix in sight, you will at least have a good idea which way to turn to try and find the island".
The flight took about twelve and a half hours, of which over nine hours were "in the soup". But again we obviously had a higher force watching over us and we were able to pick up the Midway ADF beacon over 450 miles out - though at that range it was varying plus or minus 15 degrees off of the nose. By the time we reached Midway, the weather had turned to typical tropical conditions with scattered-to-broken clouds ranging up to about 6000 ft. Boy was that little rock in the middle of a huge ocean a welcome sight!
THE BASE AT NHA TRANG
Rules of Engagement
The Vietnam War was a politically run "goat-rope" that was controlled by politicians that had no idea about how to win a war, and who were determined to tie the military's hands so they couldn't win it either. You have no doubt heard many many reports of some of the rules and regulations we had to operate under. Here are some more that you may find unbelievable, but nevertheless they are true.
• Before any artillery or airstrike bombardment could be carried out, the rules required that the local village chief approve the action. (Was he friend, or foe? No-one knew for sure). Once his approval was obtained it was then necessary for the "psy-op" birds to fly over the location and either drop leaflets and/or broadcast a loudspeaker message announcing that the location had been determined to be harboring enemy VC or NVA, and that a bombardment was scheduled for a specific time. The inhabitants were then informed that, if they were not part of the enemy force, they should leave before the bombardment began! (Who do you think stayed??)
• During the build-up to the 1968 Tet invasion by the enemy, there was a clamp-down made by senior U.S. Commanders to restrict the availability of side-arms and small arms by U.S. Forces. At that time about 50% of the U.S. military personnel at Nha Trang lived in town in villas rented from VNAF officers. An official policy statement was made by the Base and Wing Commanders that no personal side arms were to leave the base. Then as the Congressional Inquiries and complaints began to increase, the policy was revised to state that only the most senior officer or NCO in any given villa was permitted to carry a side arm off base and he was not permitted to pass it down to the next most senior, or to leave it off base when he returned to base.
• Aircrew members were provisioned with either personal handguns or M-16s to be carried aboard the aircraft during missions for personal protection. During this Tet invasion clampdown on weapons, it was decreed that the weapons would be stored on a locked metal box bolted in the aircraft. Weapons loading rules required that weapons must be loaded only at sand filled barrels that were designated for this purpose and which were located away from the aircraft on the edge of the ramp near the squadron buildings. This would necessitate that the crew go to the aircraft, retrieve their weapons, return to the squadron area to load them and then return to the aircraft again in time for the required preflight and take-off. The logistics of this became impossible. The reply from Headquarters was a statement that no ammunition would be issued for the weapons, since if the aircraft went down and crewmembers used their weapons against the enemy it would only make them mad and the crewmembers would more likely perish at the enemy's hands. Instead the sole purpose of the weapons was to be used as barter for assistance in returning to friendly hands!
This was a war full of frustrations and ridiculous rules you wanted to forget! But the people and the experiences were to be long remembered.
An Impression of the Environment
As indicated previously, the balmy climate, plush tropical plants and white sandy beaches clustered around Vietnamese villas, and overshadowed by a 10 story Buddha on a hilltop in the middle of town made Nha Trang a beautiful resort-like locale when seen in photographs. It was reported to be an R&R site for Charlie, and I'm sure Charlie extracted a fair amount of "taxes" from the locals to clandestinely support their operations. However the reality of Nha Trang's beauty included dust from the vehicle traffic over sandy streets, the smell of rotting vegetation, garbage and open sewers, and the on-base round-the-clock din of the many diesel-powered generators, random firing of the 5th Special Forces mortars and 105 mm Howitzers, and continuous round-the-clock aircraft operations. The water on base was so heavily chlorinated for protection from microbes that it was unpalatable unless chilled to near freezing and doctored with instant ice tea or powdered fruit drink (Tang). Laundry left in the tap water would be bleached almost immediately as though soaked in straight Clorox. And "Happiness is a dry fart" was the slogan of many a soldier or airman. In town it was not unusual at the fisherman's wharf to see Mama-san at the foot of the concrete steps leading into the water cleaning a fresh caught fish while Kiddy-san was seen at the bottom of the opposite steps skinny-dipping and defecating into the same water.
During the early spring monsoon season, when the wind pattern reversed and came out of the east, on-shore, the beaches were closed due to all the sewage and garbage that was blown back on shore from the two rivers that surrounded Nha Trang and dumped into the sea.
The on-base barracks for the majority of the troops were two-story concrete open-bay structures with a common center-of-the-floor eight man latrine and washing/shower area. The open bay areas were partitioned off into small cubicles, with free standing 6 foot plywood screens, painted a light celery green. Each cubicle contained bunks for two to four individuals, a metal locker for each occupant and a shared desk and chair. Since the climate was temperate year round (a cold overnight temperature being in the upper fifties to low sixties and a hot day being in the low nineties, with lots of tropical humidity) there was no glass in the large windows. Instead they were screened and covered on the outside for privacy and shade with bamboo roll-ups. This provided lots of cross ventilation, and most cubicles were provided with a ceiling fan and most bunks were generally draped with mosquito netting.
A real treat was to receive a CARE package from home containing a bottle of your favorite salad dressing (to substitute for the never ending supply of French dressing at the club), and some home baked cookies and letters and photos from home.
When the base perimeter would come under small arms or mortar attack. There was a surreal air about the place. Military members, clad in their off-duty shorts, T-shirts, and sandals would clamor up onto the roof-tops over the concrete stairs of the barracks and seek a location where they could watch the action, with little concern for their own personal safety.
The Base Commander was obsessed with winning the Base Beautiful award and concentrated resources and local manpower on building white picket fences around the barracks and clubs while the warehouses held the unused materials for the revetments that were to be constructed to protect the hundreds of aircraft on the ramp. Several valuable special mission aircraft were lost to mortar fire before this priority was reversed and the flightline revetment construction was given first priority.
The city of Nha Trang and its surroundings really were quite lush and tropical with white sand beaches worthy "to write home about", and except for the smell of decaying garbage and open sewers, it really was a beautiful location. For the first several months of 1967, we were all lulled into a feeling of complacency regarding our safety from the enemy while on the ground. In fact, it was often speculated that Nha Trang was an R&R (rest and relaxation) site for the VC and referred to as the "Riviera of Southeast Asia". However, this solitude from war was not to last.
After about August of that year we began to come under mortar barrage from the VC exactly once a month, and always at about fifteen minutes after midnight, as though "Charlie" was waiting for the Armed Forces Radio and TV station to sign-off the air first. For the most part, "Charlie's" aim was lousy and very little damage other than morale was done. Although one night he succeeded in making a direct hit on a "black" special mission C-130 on the ramp, reducing it to smoldering ashes. And several times we found unexploded dud mortar rounds in the revetments with our EC-47s.
Nha Trang was also the home of the 5th Special Forces (Green Berets) and was protected by several batteries of 105 mm Howitzers that were integrated with one of the first counter-mortar radar systems in-country. With this system, the Howitzers could return very accurate and deadly fire on a mortar tube within a reported three minutes of the first round hitting the ground. As a result "Charlie" soon learned that all he could get off would be about three rounds per tube before the tube was obliterated with 105 mm counter-fire. So we seldom got more than about 27 to 30 mortar rounds (from a barrage out of 9 or 10 mortar tubes). So within 30 minutes of the initiation of the attack, we would generally receive the "all-clear" and we could return from the bunkers to our barracks for the rest of the night (and the next 30 days).
During the TET invasion of Feb 1968 however the hostilities were getting a lot closer to home and the city of Nha Trang was attacked and partially overrun by VC and NVA. The tension on base was thick enough to cut with a knife and many of the military who lived in town were now staying on base.
True to the pattern, but about 2:00 AM (as I recall), the sound of incoming rounds was heard followed by the warning sirens and small arms fire. We all headed for the bunkers between the barracks and listened as the barrage continued and became more intense. Unlike our previous experience, the incoming rounds did not stop after the first several minutes, but continued unabated for well over 30 minutes. Rumors were rampant that the base must be under threat of being overrun and we would all be sitting ducks in the bunkers. The sound of the incoming rounds was getting closer and ever more frightening.
Then, still in the midst of the sound of incoming shells, a runner arrived at our bunker proclaiming that it was "all clear" and only a false alarm. It seems that apparently without any coordination, the US Navy had a "friendly" Cruiser in the bay that was shelling enemy positions around the perimeter of the base and that is what we were hearing.
Hit the Silk
As the end of 1967 drew near, it became widely known by Intelligence that the jungle covered mountain just to the south of Nha Trang was infested with VC. That was where most of the nighttime mortar attacks originated, as well as from Hon Tre Island in the bay along side the final approach to the west runway. As hostilities escalated, the "friendlies" decided it might be prudent to keep the mountainside illuminated at night to help the friendly patrols and to force Charlie to keep his head down.
Trying to sleep under the constant yet random report of the friendly Howitzers and mortars firing magnesium parachute flares all night became quite a challenge, but it was a small price to pay for the extra security from mortar attack.
It was amazing to look up into the mountainside in the morning to see it polka-dotted with parachute canopies from the flares of the previous night. It was equally fascinating to notice that by mid-day the majority of the parachute silk had disappeared.
Obviously, some enterprising Howitzer commander realized that Charlie was enjoying the spoils of hundreds or thousands of yards of nylon parachute material each day and decided to put an end to these donations to the enemy. At first light, this Howitzer unit commander had ordered his men to zero in on selected canopies lying in the tree tops and to monitor them continuously with binoculars. When the canopy was seen to disappear, there was a fire command given and a 105 mm shell followed the canopy out of the tree tops.
After a few days of this counter-offensive action, Charlie lost interest in salvaging parachute flare canopies!
Our routine for the one year tour was pretty predictable. Each crew flew approximately every other day, week after week. Some missions were flown during daylight hours and some after dark. So you might fly anytime of the day to provide the higher-headquarters-directed area coverage. The mission configured EC-47 carried the standard wing fuel loading of 800 gallons spread among four tanks. The typical fuel consumption at cruise was approximately 100 gallons per hour, so allowing for take off and climb the aircraft endurance to dry tanks was about 7 hours and 40 minutes. Most missions were flown for 7 hours total plus or minus 15 minutes. So a typical crewmember's flying schedule, minus down time for medical reasons, R&R and other special activites added up to over 1000 hours for the year for most people. On off-days one might pull duty crew, or additional duties around the Squadron, or just have personal time off to explore the city, work on hobbies (photography, audio taping music at the tape club, working in the shops) writing home, or just loafing.
About the middle of my tour in 1967, the first round of crews - those that had been the initial group in-country with the EC-47, and who had formed the Nha Trang 361st TEWS as a split off from the 360th TEWS in Saigon - had completed their year tour and rotated stateside. The replacements were drawn from the corps of senior Reserve officers and desk pilots who had previous C-47 time. We ended up with a large percentage of Lt. Colonels and senior Majors as pilots and co-pilots. Now this made life difficult for these senior officers, particularly those who were hoping to continue upward progression in their careers. How could anyone justify a high rated OER (Officer Effectiveness Report) necessary for highly competitive promotion slots when all they could site was Pilot or, worse yet, Co-Pilot in a C-47.
This dilemma gave rise to some real gamesmanship. The new Ops Officer (second most senior officer in the squadron) established a questionable policy that OER ratings would hinge around an aircraft commander's performance in maximizing "inflight time on station" and meeting scheduled take-off times. Those that took off early and flew the longest would be ranked high. Those that took off on schedule and flew the "frag order" duration would be considered average. Those that were late to take off and early to return would be rated below average. This gave rise to aircraft commanders who would put pressure on their crews to hustle and take off five or ten minutes early and then to fly the aircraft down to fuel states that were below safe reserves should weather or runway delays occur.
Other of these senior pilots would fabricate make-work positions for themselves with grandiose titles as additional duties and get all absorbed in getting assigned a personal "brick" - a two way hand held radio - so they could appear to have some urgent responsibility or authority.
Hard Bounce Landing!
As a junior Captain assigned to a squadron which, at one point, had over 70% of its pilots as aging Majors and senior Lt. Colonels, I was also faced with significant career challenges. Even though I had over 2000 hours currency in the aircraft and had an Instructor Pilot rating, the Squadron Commander could not justify officially designating me, and several other similarly qualified Captains, as aircraft commanders over a Lt. Col. or Major as our co-pilots. Such a reversal in rank and the related inversion of command authority just didn't bode well in most military organizations of that period. So I was taken aside by the Squadron Commander and told that, in acknowledgement of my experience, he was going to assign me as co-pilot to one of the more worrisome aircraft commanders. (Gee, thanks a lot!). This aircraft commander was a senior (51 year old) Major who was a Korean War recall who had accumulated over 10,000 hours of DC-3 and C-47 time over a combined career in the Air Force and in airline service. His weakness was, however, that he was recalled after a several year absence from the cockpit, and he was about 120 pounds "ringing wet", because his primary caloric intake was in the form of gin and vodka! In fact I observed him on more than one occasion to be flying on a mission with a bad hang-over and still "under the influence".
One mid-afternoon, at the end of a seven hour reconnaissance mission, we were on final approach to Nha Trang in VFR conditions. Tower had cleared us to land and advised us that there was an Army Caribou (a high-wing twin engine cargo aircraft of similar size as the C-47, but with STOL capabilities) on the roll-out about two-thirds of the way down the 6800 foot runway. Old "Maj. Joe" was used to airline type operations and was making a normal power-on final approach on a standard 3 degree glide path. The Army bird didn't seem too concerned (or aware) of our landing clearance and was making a very leisurely exit from the active runway. After we touched down - at about 70 knots, tail still in the air, and speed gradually decreasing - Maj. Joe observed our rapid overtake of the pokey Caribou and commented, "Well I guess I better get on the brakes and slow this bird down". Based on my previous O'Hare experience, (see www.centercomp.com/cgi-bin/dc3/story?1364 ) I expected him to get on the "binders" with the tail still in the air, but instead, the next thing I knew he was trying to "put the tail on the ground first" by applying back stick pressure! As you may appreciate, when an aircraft is still about 20 knots above the stall speed and you apply back stick pressure, the tail certainly goes down, but the main gear had no intention of staying on the ground! Then Maj. Joe realized the throttles were still cracked open about 3/8ths of an inch, and pulled them to idle. Instinctively, when an experienced tail-dragger pilot bounces a "gooney bird" landing, the normal recovery is to relax back pressure, bringing the pitch back to level and waiting for the airplane to settle in - and that is what I was expecting Joe to do. But the next thing I realized was that he was sucking the control column back into his gut, the airspeed was decaying rapidly below 60 knots, the nose was headed toward 15 degrees nose up and 20 degrees off runway centerline, and the airplane was climbing past 20 feet.
My almost immediate reaction was that we were going to die and that I had better take the airplane out of this precarious attitude. I grabbed the control wheel with both hands and stiff-armed the yoke toward the instrument panel. The aircraft flew what seemed like a zero-G parabola and the aircraft slammed into the ground with the pitch so steep that I was sure that we had impacted the prop tips. At that point I was "walking" the rudder pedals from stop to stop trying to keep the aircraft on the runway. Our landing was so violent that the Tower queried us to see if we were OK. As we shut down the aircraft and deplaned, Maj. Joe and I were still in a state of near shock, but I took the time to write the aircraft up for a hard bounce landing inspection.
A couple days later, the CO approached us in the orderly room and asked Maj. Joe about the hard bounce landing. His reply was, "Oh I just had a bit of a bounce and was going for the full-stall three-pointer, but ole Chuck got excited and pushed the nose over". Why do you ask, was there anything wrong with the airplane?" The CO replied, "No, but Maintenance spent 350 man-hours doing a landing gear inspection!" The CO then called me into his office and quizzed me in detail about the circumstances. He asked why, if I was so concerned, I hadn't just applied max power and done a go-around. I answered his question by describing my power-on stall-induced snap roll experience (at my previous O'Hare assignment), and explaining that I had no desire to repeat that experience, particularly so close to the ground! See www.centercomp.com/cgi-bin/dc3/story?1362
A Most Important Mission Target
One of the most significant targets that my crew discovered and worked was one that had high level message traffic. We were flying near the coast when we picked up the strong signal and went into our usual flight arc to try and fly around it for several triangulation plots. We soon discovered that no matter how far we flew, we were getting very little swing of the ARDF needle and concluded the target was well out to sea.
The next day we picked up the same target again and were able to define that he was now closer to shore, but still too far out to accurately fix his position. We followed his progress for several days until finally the U.S. Navy was able to intercept him in Vietnam waters. An intelligence report later reported that it was a freighter carrying replacement weapons and ammunition for a battalion size force. He was forced aground on the beach and captured. His weapons never reached their intended use.
THE HAZARDS OF COMBAT FLYING
Our biggest flight hazard in the SEA war was having a mid-air collision with other friendly aircraft or being downed by friendly ordinance.
Bombed by a B-52
On one of my 115 EC-47 missions we were tasked to do ARDF (airborne radio direction finding) on enemy targets in eastern Laos. This area was outside of our normal ground radar (GCI) flight following, so we were required to check in every 30 minutes with a status report with the airborne command and control center (ABCCC), a C-130 aircraft, call sign "Hillsboro".
Upon arrival into the target area we checked in with Hillsboro and asked if there was any artillery or ordinance advisories for our area of operations. They replied in the negative.
As we were flying our random orbit over Laos looking for enemy transmitters to pinpoint, cruising at 9000' above sea level, we were suddenly rocked by a wave of concussions. Looking out of the left side of the aircraft, I saw at about half a mile away a line of ground concussions that created two rows of craters like railroad tracks that continued to erupt at a rate of about two explosions per second for nearly sixty seconds of devastation.
As we banked quickly away to the right we contacted Hillsboro, who rather sheepishly confirmed that a B-52 on an Arc Light sortie over Vietnam had missed his primary target opportunity and was jettisoning his load of 105 five-hundred pound bombs on a "secondary target of opportunity" in Laos. With his altitude being in excess of 35,000' the B-52 was as invisible to us as we were to him, but the continuous concussion of his bombs for nearly sixty long seconds gave us a ride of a lifetime hoping and praying that there were not more B-52s dropping bombs through our altitude from over our head! Once again, our biggest recurring threat seemed to be from friendly ordinance if not mid-air collisions with friendly aircraft.
Attacked by a Battleship!
Flying an unpressurized, non-turbo equipped aircraft over the mountainous terrain of South Vietnam could be hazardous from enemy ground fire and anti-aircraft guns. With terrain varying from sea level to 8000 feet and our altitude capped by lack of oxygen at 10,000 to 12,000 feet, we could easily come within range of even small arms fire - in fact one of the squadron's aircraft and crew had been lost to ground fire just a day or two before I arrived in country in the EC-47 I had ferried from the U.S. (See details on Tide 86).
Our reconnaissance mission area covered northern South Vietnam in sections ranging from the central highlands abeam of Nha Trang all the way north to the DMZ. Our mission target orders directed us to spend maximum time on station, which became limited by the aircraft's maximum (nominal) endurance of a little over 7 hours minus whatever time it took to get to-and-from the particular target area for that mission. For maximum aircraft security, we were directed to fly to-and-from our specific mission target areas "feet wet", meaning off shore over water and out of harms way from enemy ground fire.
There was no such thing as IFR separation in the combat zone and weather patterns in SEA provided a wide variety of both IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) and VMC (visual) flight conditions. Policy was to maintain radio monitoring and contact with the U.S. controlled GCI (Ground Controlled Intercept) radar sites who would provide radar flight following and advisories on friendly aircraft and friendly artillery firing zones, since in many cases we might be well below the ballistic trajectory of high flying artillery shells.
One afternoon I was returning southbound with my aircraft and crew of eight to Nha Trang at about 6500 feet and "feet wet" down the coast from the area of the DMZ. We were in visual weather conditions, but had checked in with "Water Boy", a GCI radar site on the coast at Qhuy Nhon, a few minutes earlier. I had asked about friendly naval artillery and they had reported none on our route. I was flying about half a mile off-shore as we came upon a big boat lying just a few hundred yards further offshore than our flight path. As I flew abeam, I rolled the aircraft over in a shallow left bank to get a better look at the ship. As I did so, I was greeted with the view of looking down the 18 inch muzzles of the Battleship Missouri just as she let go a three round salvo. Although I never saw the projectiles, we did see where they impacted several seconds later about a two miles on-shore. Quick mental approximation put these garbage can-sized projectiles in a trajectory well above our 6500 foot altitude!
After taking appropriate evasive action, I contacted Water Boy and advised him of the position of the naval artillery and the approximate VOR coordinates of the impacting shells. Not 10 minutes later, we heard another USAF bird report "feet wet" and Water Boy advising him of negative naval artillery. I contacted the GCI site and asked him what he thought it was that I had just reported. He stated that my transmission was not considered as being from an "authorized source" and he therefore could not relay it to other aircraft. With that information, I transmitted to the other aircraft and suggested he stay further offshore than that big boat that was lying along his route!
While orbiting looking for radio targets one afternoon in an area over the central highlands, the skies were almost clear of clouds and the visibility was better than 30 miles. We were cruising southbound at 8,500 feet msl about 10 miles inland from the coast. As we often did, we were watching for various signs of firefights, smoke and other activities on the surface.
We saw a flight of three F-100 Super Sabres working with an O-2 FAC aircraft (Forward Air Controller) conducting an air strike against some unfriendlies a few miles from our orbit. The F-100s were flying tail chase trail formation with about 1 mile separation, diving in from above our altitude and dropping their ordinance on the smoke rockets fired by the FAC. The F-100s were operating between the surface and probably 10,000 feet and flying a wide attack orbit of maybe 5 miles radius.
As the F-100 lead pulled off his attack, he climbed directly through our altitude on a northerly swing of his orbit that put him head on to us and passed over our heads with maybe 500 to 800 feet of clearance. Number two, a mile behind the lead passed through our course climbing at about 500 feet below us and number three passed beneath us at maybe 1000 feet.
This was all the more chilling an experience recognizing that probably none of the F-100 flight ever saw us, as they had a rate of closure on us in excess of 400 knots and their leader's visual attention was likely locked onto the FAC, while two and three were focused on their Leader.
Potential Mid-Air 2
In the skies over SEA at altitudes below 18,000 feet there was no such thing as air traffic control or an IFR clearance, regardless of the weather conditions. Over Vietnam it was the policy to fly in "Tactical VFR" which consisted of flying when and where your mission dictated, day or night and in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) or VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) with radar flight following from GCI Radar sites that covered the area. These radar sites depended on the aircrews to report in to them when entering their area and to have a radar transponder on board that the GCI site could interrogate and monitor along with all other aircraft in the area.
Often, however, there were VNAF, or Army, or Air America, or other aircraft that either didn't have transponders, or didn't make use of the GCI sites for this service.
On more than one occasion, we would pop out of a towering cumuliform cloud in scattered or broken cloud conditions, only to see another C-47, Caribou, C-123, or A-1 aircraft at our same altitude on an opposing or crossing course. Who knows how many aircraft we passed while in the clouds?
A-1E "Sandy" A friendly site except when seen on a collision course!
OCCASIONALY THE THREAT WAS FROM HE ENEMY
Fired Upon by Sampans
In over 1500 hours of EC-47 flying time and a year's tour at Nha Trang, I was only aware of two incidents where I was fired upon by the enemy. The first was upon return to base at night after completing a mission. We were on an ILS final approach over the bay (landing to the west) at an altitude of maybe 500 feet, descending on the glideslope. We had our landing lights and normal night running lights illuminated. Suddenly we observed two streams of 50 Cal. machinegun tracer fire arcing their red hose-like spray from below and either side of the nose. The tracers were arcing to an altitude maybe 50 feet below our height and a couple hundred yards in front of our path, but definitely coming from the water.
I quickly doused all the lights and leveled off to initiate a go-around. We came back around the second time with the lights blacked out and flying a high angle visual approach. This time we saw no firing and assumed our report of the incident to the tower had initiated a search action by the Navy patrol boats that had put the bad guys under cover once again.
Anti Aircraft Fire
The second incident I am aware of was similarly unsuccessful and again occurred at night. We were flying a random orbit in the northern highlands when we noticed what looked like a flash bulb at approximately our altitude and about half a mile away. It was far enough distant that no noise was heard nor concussion felt. We saw several repeats of the airburst flashes and assumed that if it was anti-aircraft fire it must be targeted on something other than us.
As a precaution, we adjusted our orbit away from where we had seen the flashes. As we watched the area, we saw no further activity. After about an hour out of the area, we once again flew back closer to where we had seen the flashes. We again saw two flashes just below our altitude and about a half a mile or so away. We decided that Charlie was firing at the sound of our engines and decided not to press our luck. So we turned away and departed the area.
Friendly Ground Fire
Since our ARDF mission was in support of locating any and all enemy ground forces of sufficient size to have radio communications, we often were tasked to work in areas including friendly fire support and artillery sites. Our preflight intelligence briefings would identify the general area of these locations and provide us with an FM radio frequency that could be used to contact these sites when entering their area of fire. Since our operating altitude was restricted to below 12,000 feet msl (no pressurization or onboard oxygen) and the terrain varied anywhere from sea level to 8,000 feet, we were often in potential range of only two or three thousand feet above the ground.
Our limited knowledge of artillery operations made us aware that when an artillery battery computed their point of target impact, they calculated the direction and elevation height that the shell would traverse to hit distant or close-in to the cannon. But we were never sure if they converted their data to mean sea level (msl) datum or calculated solely in height above their terrain.
This forced us, on many occasions to worry when we were flying above say 4,000 foot terrain and they reported firing to altitudes of 6.000 feet. If we were at 8,000 feet, did this mean that their artillery projectiles were arcing to 2,000 feet below our altitude (to 6,000 feet msl) or to 2,000 feet above our altitude (6,000 feet above the 4,000 foot terrain). We were sensitive to the fact that their firing might be life critical to the support of friendly ground forces under attack, but occassionally we would have to request that they cease fire until we exited their territory.
Another problem that compounded this problem was that they would generally report their position relative to a fire support base whose position we did not have or to map coordinates that were on coded Army surface maps, not compatible with our aviation maps.
These are just some of the most significant memories of my tour in EC-47s at Nha Trang. I hope you enjoyed them and that they give you a more rounded picture of one aspect of combat life in the Southeast Asia war. - Chuck Miller, Lt. Col. USAF (Ret) 1